What’s so great about API in Argentina?

 

Lisa Brown

 

Lisa Brown is a study abroad and marketing coordinator at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, IL.

Last month, I was privileged to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to visit API’s programs there. Nice work if you can get it!

My primary role at Eastern Illinois University, where I am a study abroad coordinator, is to handle the marketing of study abroad programs. My main concern when traveling to Buenos Aires, then, was to find out what would make API’s programs marketable to our students. At EIU, we allow study abroad students to enroll directly in basically whatever accredited institution they want, so it would be completely okay for us if a student decided to enroll directly in the Universidad de Belgrano or the Universidad Torcuato di Tella. This raised the question, then: if an EIU student could enroll directly in these institutions, why choose the API program? What value does API add to the student experience?

It took no more than one day to discover the answer to that question. The value added by the API experience lies in the talents of their fabulous staff!

API resident director Carmen in Salta, Argentina

Carmen Alvarez de Toledo is API’s Resident Director. She’s an old pro in the field of study abroad, though she would not approve my unauthorized use of the word “old” here. (It’s just an idiomatic phrase, Carmen!) She has a fabulous personality and a flaming wit, and I promise you wouldn’t want to see any other face to greet you when you first arrive at the airport.

When I first met Carmen, I looked around the airport anxiously for the API staff and immediately spotted her waving an API sign. When I approached her, she met me with a smile, a friendly greeting, a reassuring pat on the pat, and a useful Spanish tip.

In Argentina, we say ‘tomar el bus’ if we want to take the bus. We never say coger like they do in Spain because in Argentina ‘coger’ has a bad meaning.” She leaned in confidentially and whispered, “It starts with an F!

I was impressed. This woman pegged me from the start as someone whose nerves could be calmed with a funny anecdote about the F-word—and she was absolutely correct.

The ability to calm nerves is an important one for study abroad staff, as traveling abroad can be rather daunting—especially when you’re not fluent in the native language. Carmen, though, gave us a wonderful orientation to Argentina, which included tips on safety (“Walk with your purse on the building side, not the street side.”), how to get around (“You need exact fare for the bus.”), important rules for living with a host family (“If you’re going to miss dinner, call them. Otherwise, they will wait up for you.”), fun facts about Argentina (“Buenos Aires has the second highest rate of therapists per person after New York City.”), and taboo topics (“Don’t talk about the Falkland Islands War.”). We felt knowledgeable, and, if still not quite confident, we knew we could ask Carmen whatever we needed to know. It felt like having a sister or an aunt who lived in the city; with Carmen, all topics were on the table.

Horseback riding at Argentine Estancia

Carmen also takes very seriously the students’ needs to learn and have a unique experience. For example, one common experience that many visitors have when they visit Buenos Aires is a visit to a ranch, or “estancia.” Many of these estancias are available for tourists to visit for a fee. However, Carmen is not satisfied with providing a “tourist” experience for students. She arranges for students to visit a private estancia where a real Argentine family lives for a delicious meal and a fun afternoon of horseback riding, singing, and dancing. I have a talent for none of these activities (besides the eating), but it didn’t matter—it felt like being with your own family. If you looked like a fool, then so be it.

Another area popular with tourists is the La Boca neighborhood, which has to be one of the most colorful neighborhoods in the world. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the poorest in Buenos Aires.

Book co-op in La Boca

Rather than encouraging students to roam the neighborhood as tourists buying tacky souvenirs, API takes the students behind the scenes with visits to two cooperatives, one that produces books and another that bakes alfajores, which are sort of the national cookie of Argentina. When we took this tour, we learned how these co-ops were working to better the conditions of the people in La Boca.

I walked away from the tour with a couple of books and several gorgeously hand-painted wooden boxes filled with alfajores. When I arrived home in the U.S., I didn’t give my family and friends souvenirs; I gave them momentos that had life and a story behind them. Plus, I also felt good that my purchases were helping to better the lives of the wonderful people we met.

Colorful homes in La Boca

Our guide for both of these excursions was Gaby Masson, API’s cultural activities coordinator. Upon meeting Gaby, I was first struck by how elegant she is. She has perfect posture (she’s a skilled tango dancer), and her features look like those that would belong to a French movie star in the 1960s. I’ve probably made her sound like a snob, but in fact she’s one of the warmest people I’ve met in my life. She’s kind and generous with her time, and she when guiding us through Buenos Aires she was always considerate of what we would find interesting and useful.

Believe it or not, however, neither her appearance nor her warmth is what sticks out the most in my mind when I reflect on Gaby. What, then, is Gaby’s most outstanding characteristic? Ask any API Buenos Aires student and you’ll receive the same answer: Gaby Masson knows every single detail about absolutely everything in Buenos Aires. As one student told me, “She’s a walking encyclopedia.”

And it’s true! Generally I find myself a little nervous about asking tour guides questions because I’m afraid that I’ll embarrass them by asking them a question to which they don’t know the answer. After about two days with Gaby, this fear completely went away. There seemed to be no end to her knowledge. She seemed to know the story behind every tomb in the Cementario Recoleta, every painting in the Fine Arts museum, and every tango song ever written. Gaby has such a wide range of knowledge, and she is generous about sharing all of it.

I strongly believe that the source of API’s success its people. Also traveling in our group was Courtney Goike, the Vice President of Student Services & Policy. Courtney never seemed to lose her enthusiasm for a second, and I have a feeling that if API were to elect a homecoming queen, it would probably be Courtney. Julie Leitman, one of API’s co-founders, also joined us, and despite the weight of that co-founder title, I found her to be one of the easiest people to bond with that I’ve ever met. She’s the kind of person you’d love to go hiking with. You know the hike would kick your butt, but the laughter and stories around the campfire at night would make it all worth it.

It’s the staff that makes API Buenos Aires so very Worth It. I left Buenos Aires confident that I could send any of our EIU students to Buenos Aires and they would be safe, happy, and cared for. Not only that, but they’d have a once-in-a-lifetime study abroad experience that would be worth every single penny and more. You can put a price on many things, but Carmen and Gabby are truly priceless. I feel very fortunate to have the ability to vouch for that firsthand.

Lisa gives her approval to an Argentine steak

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Comments

  1. Dear Lisa,

    Although I work at API now, I always remember the first contact I had with API staff; I was genuinely impressed with how thorough, welcoming and well…just how on top of everything they were! They certainly made a lasting impression on me – enough for me to move across the country to join the API staff. 1 1/2 years later and I’m still here, feeling the same way! (=

    Thank you for this post – I’m so glad you had a great experience in Buenos Aires with API! I would also certainly agree with what you say about Carmen, Gaby, Julie and Courtney. They are all absolutely wonderful and yes, I too would most likely elect Courtney for API homecoming queen. (;

    Best,

    Kim Karalekas

  2. Nice post! Not that I am unhappy at my job, but I think I would like yours too =)

    Cheers,
    Andrew

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